More Evidence That Self-driving Cars Are on a Road to Nowhere

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
more evidence that self driving cars are on a road to nowhere

We’ve been critical that self-driving systems are, ahem, “oversold” by automakers and tech firms hoping to boost their stock valuations. That doesn’t mean autonomous vehicles won’t happen, just that the timeline is probably a lot longer than the public has been led to believe. Still, it makes sense to pursue AVs. The first company to achieve legitimate self-driving will blow the hinges off a door leading to an array of new business opportunities.

General Motors, long considered a frontrunner in the autonomous race, is apparently in desperate need of a second wind. Its Cruise self-driving unit is said to be woefully behind in its attempt to bring an autonomous vehicle to the commercial market by 2019. Some GM staffers have confessed that the current system isn’t even capable of identifying whether objects are in motion or not — which seems like an important distinction for a computer-controlled automobile to be able to make.

According to a series of interviews Reuters conducted with eight current and former GM and Cruise employees and executives, serious troubles plague the automaker’s autonomous arm. “Nothing is on schedule,” one source said, noting a flurry of internal targets the company has already missed.

However, Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt claims everything is going according to plan. Vogt said whatever limitations GM faces will be mitigated by limiting the upcoming autonomous taxi service to specific regions, starting with San Francisco. From there, the system can be improved and rolled out to other cities before ultimately becoming capable of driving anywhere. “Based on where we’re at and where we’ve been, we’re on track to hit that [2019 goal],” Vogt said.

Unfortunately, one current and three former Cruise employees told the outlet a decidedly less optimistic story. They claimed to have witnessed an issue where test mules failed to identify whether objects in the road were stationary or moving. Fortunately, the cars have a tendency to exercise caution, slowing or stopping when they approach a collection of parked motorcycles or bicycles.

From Reuters:

At times, the software has failed to recognize pedestrians, and has mistakenly seen phantom bicycles, causing the cars to brake erratically, according to two of the sources. And Cruise does not yet have a data-sharing collaboration with the San Francisco Fire Department, a necessary step to train the cars to respond to fire truck sirens, according to a fire department spokesman.

In addition, the open-source software robotics tools that Cruise used to develop the technology has delays that slow messages from the car’s sensors to the car’s brain, according to a fourth former employee and nine other people familiar with Cruise’s technology.

It sounds like the Cruise AV is currently stuck in geriatric mode, but that’s not all that uncommon for self-driving vehicles. Even the most advanced systems currently on the road are exceptionally timid and don’t like venturing too far from their home base.

Vogt said next-generation hardware and software should help address these issues, improving performance. “Early in development I’m sure there were phases where we were putting systems together where they didn’t meet the requirements we needed for launch, and that’s part of the testing and development process,” he said.

Those improvements will be incredibly important in 2019, as GM’s $5 billion in investment commitments from Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp. and Honda Motor Co. is dependent on Cruise achieving specific performance targets. Failure to adhere to its publicly announced timeline is also likely to rattle investor confidence. General Motors doesn’t want that, especially since its stock has declined since June of this year.

Does this mean GM’s autonomous development is a sham? Not necessarily. While it might not have the lead we once assumed, no other established automaker seems ready to surpass it. Tech firms have hit snags of their own. Uber basically had to restart its autonomous development program after a highly publicized fatality during testing and Waymo, which has the only true driverless fleet on public roads, has had problems of its own.

Users of Waymo’s pilot program have started complaining that its vehicles have issues coping with certain complex tasks. The worst of these, according to reports from August, are an occasional inability to turn left across multiple lanes of traffic and issues merging onto busy expressways. Other users claim their AVs stopped abruptly, sometimes for no apparent reason.

“Everyone in the industry is becoming more and more nervous that they will waste billions of dollars,” said Klaus Fröhlich, a board member at BMW and its head of research and development team.

General Motors claims safety is its highest concern, adding that it won’t put cars on the road that aren’t up to the task. “Right now we are in a race to the starting line,” said GM President Dan Ammann. “Getting stuck on one particular parameter, or one particular scenario, is missing the fundamental point of what is the total overall performance of the system.”

[Image: General Motors]

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  • ToolGuy 38:25 to 45:40 -- Let's all wait around for the stupid ugly helicopter. 😉The wheels and tires are cool, as in a) carbon fiber is a structural element not decoration and b) they have some sidewall.Also like the automatic fuel adjustment (gasoline vs. ethanol).(Anyone know why it's more powerful on E85? Huh? Huh?)
  • Ja-GTI So, seems like you have to own a house before you can own a BEV.
  • Kwik_Shift Good thing for fossil fuels to keep the EVs going.
  • Carlson Fan Meh, never cared for this car because I was never a big fan of the Gen 1 Camaro. The Gen 1 Firebird looked better inside and out and you could get it with the 400.The Gen 2 for my eyes was peak Camaro as far as styling w/those sexy split bumpers! They should have modeled the 6th Gen after that.
  • ToolGuy From the listing: "Oil changes every April & October (full-synth), during which I also swap out A/S (not the stock summer MPS3s) and Blizzak winter tires on steelies, rotating front/back."• While ToolGuy applauds the use of full synthetic motor oil,• ToolGuy absolutely abhors the waste inherent in changing out a perfectly good motor oil every 6 months.The Mobil 1 Extended Performance High Mileage I run in our family fleet has a change interval of 20,000 miles. (Do I go 20,000 miles before changing it? No.) But this 2014 Focus has presumably had something like 16 oil changes in 36K miles, which works out to a 2,250 mile average change interval. Complete waste of time, money and perfectly good natural gas which could have gone to a higher and better use.Mobil 1 also says their oil miraculously expires at 1 year, and ToolGuy has questions. Is that one year in the bottle? One year in the vehicle? (Have I gone longer than a year in some of our vehicles? Yes, I have. Did I also add Lucas Oil 10131 Pure Synthetic Oil Stabilizer during that time, in case you are concerned about the additive package losing efficacy? Yes, I might have -- as far as you know.)TL;DR: I aim for annual oil changes and sometimes miss that 'deadline' by a few months; 12,000 miles between oil changes bothers me not at all, if you are using a quality synthetic which you should be anyway.